Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. I’m very excited about today’s show because we have William Vanderbloemen, founder of Vanderbloemen Search Group. William, thank you so much for being on the show today. I know most of our listeners probably already know you, but go ahead and give us a little bit of background.
Neil, there are probably about 7 billion people that don’t know me. I just have a weird last name so people know it’s that guy with the weird name, but yeah, I served as a pastor for about 15 years mostly as a senior pastor, I guess 13 of those 15 years in the Presbyterian Church, and then went into the corporate world. I had a job at a really great company, got paid well but just hated it. While I was there, I noticed they were Fortune 200 companies so pretty big, their market caps a little larger than Starbucks. They went through a CEO succession in about 90 days and replaced a longstanding CEO. The guy they put there is still there 10 years later and that’s … you don’t last long as a CEO of a Fortune 200. So I just looked at that and I thought “How come they’re able to do that in 90 days when it takes the church a long time to find pastors and it doesn’t always work?” That got me asking a question, could it be possible to build a solution for the church that would be at least as good as what the corporate world has. So for the last 9 years now, I’ve been trying to learn the art of helping people find the right pastor or staff, any full-time staff for the church. But the funny thing is when I saw your podcast, I was so excited because it reminded me of my young days as an associate pastor. I would get a publication; nearly everybody in the Presbyterian Church got it. It would come to you on Mondays in this thing called the US Postal Service; pretty crazy. It was called Monday morning and it was all really light reading, and in the back you could post a job opening, because on Mondays pastors are not needing deep breathing. They’re pretty depressed, and frankly they’re probably going to look at the classifieds a little more on Monday, so total kick to be on the new Monday morning.
Yeah, the rebooted version right?
Well, it’s great. I think what you’re doing is really great, especially as I’m talking to executive pastors out there who are dealing with a lot of challenges. One of them is that a lot of the senior ministers who may have built these churches that are growing 2000, 3000, 4000 and above, they’re starting to retire. They’re starting to get to that age where they need to move on and they need to find somebody to replace that, so it’s great that you’re offering this service to churches that are out there.
Thanks man. I say we’re learning as we go. We’ve done right out a thousand searches now, which was a pretty cool milestone to see. We work with a lot of executive pastors in helping them find their support staff, or if the senior pastor leaves, helping them out with those kind of questions.
Let’s get into some specifics. You get to interact with a lot of churches around the country, so I think your insights will be very interesting to most people listening in. This podcast is for executive pastors who are out there. As you interact with that profile person, what do you see as the top challenges that they’re struggling with right now?
I don’t know if it’s limited to executive pastors, but I think frankly there’s a shortage of children’s pastors, and I mean that literally. The curriculum and the way we do children’s ministry changed, I guess it’s probably been 15 years ago now when Orange started to hit the market. It was a new way of doing, [final 04:15] graphs are gone and now we’re doing large group and small group, where it used to be the children’s director was, whatever mom came in and complained enough about the children’s ministry, you said “Guess what? You’re the new children’s director.” That worked great. Now there’s a whole new skill set that’s needed in recruiting, retaining and training great volunteers in this kind of curriculum. I think the curriculum has grown faster than the supply chain, if you will, of children’s pastors. We get calls all the time “Can you help us find a children’s pastor?” and the smart people say “We want a male.” You can’t discriminate, but the truth is if you have a male children’s pastor you’re going to get more male volunteers. That’s just a really tough find and most churches have not adjusted their compensation to a level that would warrant somebody moving across the country for a children’s pastor job, which I think is a terrible mistake.
I’m going to sound way too corporate here. I love the church. This is all about the kingdom, but the truth is the biggest growth engine in your church is your children’s ministry. A well-paid children’s minister that kills it always pays for himself. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges I hear. I kind of kid all the time and say “If Jesus hadn’t said that he loved children and you get a millstone around your neck if you don’t take care of them,” I probably wouldn’t do children’s pastor searches. They’re just really hard, so that’s one thing I’m seeing. I guess another challenge that a lot of exec pastors are dealing with right now that is a little more limited in scope is the exec pastor of the church where the senior pastor is either late 50s or early 60s, and it’s not time for them to retire yet but it’s time to start a conversation about how are we going to handle this. What’s a 10 year run look like? It’s just a terribly awkward conversation.
What’s a recommendation you can give to start that out? What do you tell people?
This wasn’t planned. I did not script out answers, but 3 years ago a friend of mine, Warren Byrd, who’s a researcher and I studied 500 different churches and their successions – good, bad and ugly. We studied a whole bunch of those in-depth and looked at a lot of statistics, and wrote a book called Next: Pastoral Succession That Works. The sole purpose of the book for me was to allow the conversation to start, so it’s not like here’s the cookie cutter to fix it for you. It’s just a way to start a conversation. It can be pretty awkward for an exec pastor to have to bring it up. I don’t know if you just anonymously gift the book to your pastor, but it’s a challenge I’m seeing a lot of exec pastors have to deal with.
Yeah. It’s a big thing too. Maybe you can share a success story that you’ve seen in terms of that succession plan really going well.
I’ve only been at it for 9 years so it’s too early. Ask me in 20 years and I’ll tell you a bunch of great stories. From one of the churches that we got to be part of the succession planning and then the search for the senior pastor, is a church called Cherry Hills in the Denver area. They had a legendary pastor. I believe he founded it. If he didn’t found it, it was tiny when he got there. I would not have wanted to follow him. He had the New Testament memorized; Jim Dixon. Ever heard where the Boardwalk and [Park Place 08:10] of Heaven is? That’s where you’re going to find Jim. I’m going to be on Mediterranean Avenue or Baltic Place, but he’s just a saint and built the whole thing up and was ready to retire. We mapped out a plan and the church had done a lot of work too, and now their new pastor I guess has been there … Shane’s been there for 4 years. It had been a large church and had kind of plateaued a little bit. The second year, he was there as the fast growing church in America – not without bumps here and there, but he’s just done an awesome job and a very humble guy. When you see that kind of thing happen, that’s pretty awesome. Another church that comes to mind is a church in a really small town in North Carolina, Brick church. Their pastor had already left and it was like, “How do we plan for the next pastor in this tiny town?” We asked them to send their church budget and they sent it and then they said “Oh, we forgot to include the receipts from the barbecue chicken dinner we do every year.” That’s like the material party? Oh yeah, it’s a big deal. From big churches to little churches, we see that when a board takes time to say “How do we intentionally plan this out?” it can go really well.
Yeah, so the executive pastor position is one that sometimes you might want to bring in somebody who has more of the corporate business side experience. Whenever you’re helping churches to identify someone in that side, what’s the kind of feel for how much ministry experience he might need versus how much corporate experience they can bring in and add that value to the church? What kind of blend do you see in that situation?
I’d say first of all, the exec pastor has to fit hand in glove with the senior pastor. A lot of what’s needed in exec pastor is somewhat determined by what is the senior pastor like. If there is no senior pastor, I think it’s probably a mistake to hire an exec pastor in the absence of a senior. They just have to get along and be complimentary in a way that is unlike any other role. I’ve seen exec pastors that like the old school Baptist way of doing church. You had the minister of education and the minister of administration, so you had the ministry side guy and then you had the ‘numbers and HR on property and all that’ guy. I’ve seen exec pastors in a very collaborative environment where they were able to walk into the student pastor’s office and say “What can I help you get done? How do I clear the road for you so you can get things done?” It’s almost an equipping role. I’ve also seen executive pastors that are just “I’m going to be what the senior pastor can’t be.” This is very much how we functioned as an office. When we took off as a company, my COO was our very first full-time hire, and I just go out there and create chaos. I know I do. I make a big mess because I’m trying to grow things and increase our ability to help the church, and he just sort of followed me around and made an order out of the chaos that I created.
I think it all hinges on what’s the senior pastor, and where if he had complements to his weaknesses, the church would move forward. Where are those and how would you outline them? I will say, while I love working with business guys and frankly sometimes prefer that over pastors, I used to think when I was a pastor, I thought if I could just get a corporate executive in here, that would be so good. I’m going to just hazard a guess the number of times that people just plug in a business guy; I think it works about half the time because things in the corporate world are so different from church. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ll go in to do an exec pastor search, and we’ll say “Hey, why is this position open?” They’ll say “Well, we had a corporate guy in fact who’s a member of the church and we tried plugging him in but he just ran over our volunteers. He didn’t get that we have to take a little longer or we aren’t going to measure quite as metrically. We need somebody that understands church, not just business.” While I love the business guys and I’ve seen it work a whole lot, I think senior pastors if you’re like I was, you’d get a little punch-drunk thinking like “If I could just get a competent executive in here, we’d do more things.” It’s not that simple a formula.
Interesting. I’m thinking more about this dual relationship you’re talking about, how the senior pastor and the exec pastor need to complement each other. What about a situation where the senior and the exec have been getting along very well, then the senior decides to move on or he retires or something like that? In that situation when you already have an executive, an established executive pastor who has their own processes and ways they run, personality, is it really better to search for a senior guy who’s almost very similar to the one that they had before, just to encourage that complementary behavior?
I think the church has to ask some hard questions about what’s most important. I’ve done searches where they had an exec pastor and they said “Hey, Neil is our exec pastor and he does an awesome job. He’s holding this whole place together. We would rather not lose him and hire around his personality.” I’ve had other situations which were like “Man, our pastor left and he was like the preacher and he brought the heat, and that’s what grew our church. It’s what kept people here, his vision or whatever the thing is and we have got to replace that … If that means that Neil won’t make it, then that’s fine.” So we try and figure out on the front end of a search, where are the sacred cows. What’s ultimately important and how do you staff around that?
When it comes to staffing a role, any kind of leadership role that’s there, what are some of the things that you feel like churches are routinely unprepared for when they come to you?
Well, it depends entirely on the [size 14:37] church. In our history, when we started working, the first people to hire us because we’re kind of a new idea for the church, were very entrepreneurial people. This may sound like I’m compartmentalizing the church too much, but entrepreneurial pastors fall into one of two categories pretty much. It’s either church planters who can’t afford staff and certainly can’t afford to pay someone to help them find staff, or it’s church planters whose church has grown and been very fast growing and has become a swashbuckling thing in the kingdom. Those were the ones who originally hired us, so it was like the Willow Creeks of the world, the Saddlebacks, Life Church. Our median client size was about 6500 in attendance, so it was the big churches because they could see the value and they were big enough that they could absorb the cost.
As we started serving the smaller churches or frankly the more normal churches, it’s a totally different value proposition if you will. When I walk into Willow Creek or our team does, they’re like “Here’s what we need you to do.” Ok, that’s fine. We’ll go help you get done what you need to do. We walk into a church under 1000 and they look at us with wide eyes and say “Please tell us what to do.” It’s almost like the larger the church, the more sophisticated their HR functions are and they know a little bit more about hiring and reference checks, offer letters, even little things. One of our consultants told me today that a little church said “We can’t figure out how to get the right bulletin announcement about the search for this week.” It just runs the gamut. It really depends on what type of church you’re dealing with. If it’s a staff driven church, then we’re working with one person. If it’s a committee driven church, then it’s a whole different thing.
Let’s put you in a situation. You’re going in and you’re meeting a church for the first time. You’re sitting down with the executive pastor, talking about a key position that they’re going to hire. What are some signals that you see that say, hey this church has got it going on. They’re in good shape. What are some of those triggers that you look for just to say, this church knows what they want.
I try and make sure that they know what they want and are prepared for what they’re telling me. We serve all kinds of denominations. If you’re trying to move the church forward and you’re decent to your people, we will come alongside. We’re not going to judge your theology. Just like churches across the board in America, most of our churches probably don’t ordain women but then some do. We were sitting down with a great church up in New England, White Clapboard Church, everything you’d think about a Congregational Church. It’s in the U.C.C; Evangelical congregation within that denomination and I said “So do you envision having a male or a female pastor?” The chair of the board said “I think we need a female senior pastor.” I’m like “Okay.” He knew what he needed, right? So I said “Tell me this. What would be really helpful is if I could talk to all of the former female senior pastors you’ve had at your church” and he’s like “Well, pretty sure this would be the first one.” All right, fine. This is a church of about 500. I said “You’ve got associate pastors. If you could give me a list of all the former female associate pastors, then maybe one of those would want to come take the job.” “We can’t really think of anybody. I don’t know if we had one of those either.” “Okay, what about a list of like people you’ve had in for lecture series or revival or preaching conferences that are female?” “None come to mind.” I’m like “All right, new subject. Let’s talk about change readiness. When is the last time you guys went through a really big change and how did the church handle it?” Another person in the committee kind of figured out what was going on and said “Well, you know we changed hymnals a few years back and we lost some people.” The chair looked at me and said “Okay, I get it. I think I would like to think we want a female senior pastor but we’re probably not ready for it.”
I think it’s not just knowing what they want, but knowing what the church can tolerate. When Jesus talked about old wine skins and new wine, he wasn’t writing an op-ed. That’s like, real. There’s what do we aspire to want and what can we realistically tolerate without breaking, and somewhere in between those two things is where we try and guide people so that they’re not calling us in 2 years saying “They changed too much too fast and we had to let him go.”
Let’s look into your crystal ball for a second. We’re going to have this conversation in 20 years, so what are some things you expect to see changing in the church world in terms of staffing, in terms of behind the scenes stuff that’s going on? What do you think are the big changes that are going to happen, probably sooner rather than later?
I think we will have 50 churches in the country that are worshipping 50,000 or more, and probably a dozen of them would be over 100,000. I think that the big will continue to get bigger. You can see that trend in every indicator possible; you can see it in the corporate world. Big law firms are buying up little ones, and off you go. Wal-Mart is buying as much as they can and doing all they can to get bigger. Amazon bought Whole Foods today on the day we’re recording this, so big is getting bigger. I think conversely, the smaller church will need to find a boutique reason, like what’s the thing that we do that makes us a little different than the big shop? Maybe that’s a great small groups ministry or great fellowship or a common mission cause. Our church, I think 80 or 90% of our mission portfolios are on one thing, and that’s what we’re known for. We provide clean water to places that don’t have it. So I think big will get bigger; small will boutique. The midsize is going to hard time, unless they are a midsize church that is the biggest thing in whatever size town they’re in. In terms of staffing, I think you’re going to see … already you’re going to see more and more people saying, it’s okay to have outside help. When I first started, people were like “I don’t know about this whole search thing. Aren’t we dodging the Holy Spirit and the work of God by having men?” I’m like “Do you all take an offering on Sunday?” “Yeah.” “What do you do with it?” “We put it in a bank.” “Oh okay.” Now all the conversations are not, “We’re wondering whether or not we want help.” It’s “Are you the right people for us?”
I think that will continue. I think what’s going to be really interesting to see 20 years from now is what has happened to all of the really large auditoriums that have been built in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. There’s some 9000 seat auditoriums out there that are going to be really hard to fill. I’m thinking, God will provide and some of them will fill but others, I just don’t know. One of our friends that does a lot of multi-site church with many, many locations, they won’t build a venue that’s over 1000 seats anymore. I think that’s going to continue, and I think there’ll probably be fewer staff that are better paid. The days of having a staff where there’s a singles pastor and a college pastor and this pastor, I just don’t see those specialists around. What I see instead are leaders who can produce leaders.
Wow, I just got a good glimpse of what’s coming up. Multi-site seems like it’s here to stay. That seems like the path that most churches are going down. Do you see that happening along with what you said about big getting bigger, in terms of as a corporation would buy up other churches? Do you see that trend continue to happen, merging almost like an acquisition type of thing?
Absolutely. We have several Catholic clients and I was with one of them. It’s a fascinating Evangelical Catholic client. They’re doing purpose-driven ministry. They’re driving people around the bases; they’re awesome. He was asking about what we do with multi-site churches and I said “Father Michael, you guys [are the first multi-site church.” This is not a new idea. They used the best media of the time, print, and they did the same service in one church in many locations. This is not new, but we have seen something that really encourages my soul. I’ve said this a bunch so forgive me if you’ve heard it, but if you look at church history and you look at the seminal breakthroughs of the church, when did we really grow? Not when we started using drums in church … that’s good, but the once every 500 or 1000 year breakthroughs. Look at them and there’s a common thread. Every kingdom breakthrough comes on the heels of a communication breakthrough. So Rome builds roads and Paul’s able to go plant churches all over the place, along with the other people in Acts. Alexander conquers the Western world. We have finally instead of a bunch of different forms of Greek, we have one common Greek and the New Testament is canonized in common Greek. Martin Luther; a printing press gets invented and Luther puts a Bible in everybody’s hands. We’re right now on the heels of the single biggest communication breakthrough ever, and I’m just thrilled to be alive and to see what’s going to happen over the next 50 or 75 years in church growth, because I think it’s going to be one of those seasons that unless Jesus comes back soon, it’s going to be one of those seasons that hundreds of years from now, people will look back at this little slice of time, this 50-75 year window and say “Man, that’s when new things started to happen and this whole new era of the church was born.”
I just encourage your listeners … I’m all about theological precision. I’m Presbyterian; I think through things systematically. But I think God’s going to probably grade us a little bit more on our willingness to try something new than our willingness to have it 100% right before we try it, because this is the season to try and explore and pioneer. If there’s one thing I’ll say about 20 years from now, there are going to be things that we haven’t even dreamt of that have become new transit. It’s a cool time to be in a church.
Absolutely, that’s great insights, awesome stuff to share about and think about. I think everything you’ve said definitely seems like this is the way we’re going. Can you leave us with one closing thought for all the XPs out there?
When I was getting ready for this podcast, I thought back to that little printed magazine that came out on Monday mornings and it was usually encouraging. It’s true, Mondays are tough and ministry is tough. I’ve never had a better job, I’ve never had a harder job than when I was in ministry. It’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re making a difference. Exec pastors particularly, you guys get asked to do the dirty work sometimes, the hard stuff. I would just say, be encouraged, be of good cheer. This is a great season to be an exec pastor and you’re doing good work. More than anything, stay encouraged and be of good cheer and don’t send me your resume on a Monday. You can wait till Tuesday, it’s fine.
That’s a good one. All right William, thank you so much. People can check out on the Vanderbloemen website, Vanderbloemen.com. I’ll put those links in the show notes. Thanks a lot for being on the show.
Thanks Neil, really appreciate what you’re doing and enjoyed being with you today.